Many years ago, Larry Easton published a single photo of a small Soo Line coaling tower at Marquette, Mich., in the Crossbuck newsletter of the Midwest Region of the National Model Railroad Association. I fell instantly in love with the little structure and decided to build a model of it. Larry kindly sent me several more photos so I could gather more data.
The project got off to a rough start, though. Only having photos to work with, I drew plans based solely on the height of a door at the base of the tower. Then a friend of mine found some actual drawings for it and it turns out my guess was far off. In fact, I was 16 feet off the actual height! What happened? Well, it turns out the “A” I earned in high school geometry didn’t help me when it came to estimating the height of coal towers.
The project stalled for months, but then I finally decided to do it right, scrapped what I had, and started over. Contacting the railroad in 1971, I was disappointed to learn there was no coaling tower left at Marquette and thus no way to measure it. In fact, the only thing left at Marquette was a sand tower for diesels.
However, the project took a turn for the better a few years later on a trip to the Upper Peninsula with my wife Mary Cay. I decided to swing through Marquette hoping to just find some concrete piers for measurements. But when I arrived at the rail yard, I spied the very coaling tower I had been wanting to model. “There it is!” I shouted. The steel tank on the old tower was now used for diesel sand, but the wooden coal bunker (without hardware) was still there. A frantic Sunday afternoon of measurements and many rolls of film later, I had all I needed for the project. In those days no one bothered a guy in work clothes, steel-toed boots, and hard hat who was carrying a camera, notepad, and measuring tools. It was a joyous trip home.
Now I made my own correct, complete-scale drawings, but fate stepped in again. I had nearly finished the O scale model when RMC then-Editor Tony Koester was in Chicago for an NMRA convention. Carefully putting the model on the floor in the back of our station wagon, I headed to the city to meet up with Tony. But when I got into a traffic jam on the Eisenhower Expressway and had to quickly slam on the brakes, I heard a commotion from the back. A heavy metal toolbox had slid forward and plopped right down on top of my coal tower, turning it into a wooden stick pancake. Literally crushed, it was time to start over (but I really didn’t want to).
Seventeen years passed before I finally built another O scale model of the coal tower and sandhouse. Bill Schaumburg was RMC’s editor by then, and together we published an in-depth, four-part feature starting in May 1988 about building the tower — one of my favorite and certainly longest articles ever published.
Soon after, Bachmann contacted me for use of my plans and photos to produce an HO scale injection-molded plastic kit of the coal tower. Later, Model Railroader used my tower as a cover background in the July 1993 issue.
Over the years I’ve been gratified to see “my” coal tower appear on many layouts. But perhaps the most exciting moment came a few years ago when I got an inquiry from Tom Fisher at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., needing information to construct a small, but full-size, coaling tower for the operating railroad at Greenfield Village. I was delighted to supply all I had. A 1:1 scale prototype was constructed based on my model. Tom recently told me, “Without your article, our tower probably wouldn’t exist.” It’s amazing to me that my own model was the inspiration to rebuild an actual full-size facility used to fuel steam locomotives once again!
Meanwhile, back here at home, my own version of the coal tower — the O scale one that wasn’t crushed on the expressway — is still occasionally used as a backdrop for photos of new models. From a single prototype photo, to an O scale model, to HO kit, to a full-size real coaling tower, it’s been an amazing ride. And it all started with a simple photo and caption: “Just another small coaling tower at Marquette, Mich.”
The moral of the story? If you have something neat, share it with others. Oh, and a bit of perseverance helps, too!